Fox Sports Looks To Create Ringside Experience With Launch of WWE Backstage Studio Show
Pro-wrestling talk show debuted on FS1
With a month of SmackDown productions under its belt, Fox Sports continues its dive into the world of WWE tonight with the premiere of WWE Backstage on FS1. The hour-long weekly show, which features longtime WWE broadcaster Renee Young and WWE Hall of Famer Booker T, is television’s only studio show devoted entirely to WWE.
“It’s really the first show of its kind. There has not been a truly pro-wrestling–centric talk show to air on any network,” says Jacob Ullman, SVP, production and talent development, Fox Sports. “We’re doing something that really hasn’t been done before. If you look at the Apple podcast rankings in sports and recreation categories, the number of top-ranked podcasts that are pro-wrestling–focused is staggering. So we look at it as an opportunity because there is clearly a market for this kind of content but it hasn’t existed on TV up to this point.”
A New Studio To Go With a New Production Philosophy
Although the show will be produced out of Fox Sports’ iconic Studio A on its Los Angeles lot — home to Fox NFL Sunday and Fox’s other signature studio shows — the production team has revamped the studio with a whole new look for WWE Backstage, including a custom-designed wrestling ring as the centerpiece.
“We’ve transformed that set so it doesn’t look like anything we’ve done before,” says Ullman. “Instead of a standard desk that would be typical on one of our sports-specific studio shows, we’ve got a fully workable ring as the focal point. It gives the show a lot of flexibility because we can shoot from all different angles and showcase it in different ways.”
Rather than treating WWE like a traditional sports studio show built on highlights and expert analysis, Ullman compares the production philosophy for WWE Backstage to AMC’s Talking Dead, which airs after Walking Dead and dissects storylines and character development in the show.
“It has been interesting for our production team as we try to find the right tone. This show is an interesting challenge because it’s more story-based than sports-based, so it’s less straightforward than a sports highlights show,” says Ullman. “And we will be covering everything within the WWE universe. It’s not specific to SmackDown at all; it will cover Raw, SmackDown, NXT, pay-per-views — anything within the WWE universe.”
Fox is also embracing the audacious style of WWE, designing an entirely new graphics package (based on the same blue color featured in the SmackDown logo) and will feature splashy WWE-style entrances for the show’s guests, including pyrotechnics, smoke machines, and lasers.
“WWE is bold, bright, and brash, and that’s what the graphic look and the overall feel are going to be for WWE Backstage,” says Ullman. “The Graphics Department has done an absolutely tremendous job, led by [EVP, Graphics/Creative Director] Gary Hartley, of owning this whole project and transforming it into something totally different from anything we’ve ever done. We’re really proud of how it looks and how the show feels.”
Fox has also deployed remote cameras at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, which will allow WWE Backstage to conduct live interviews with top WWE wrestlers and personalities.
Months in the Making
Tonight’s debut caps months of preparation for Fox’s WWE production team, which is led by Ullman; Ben Grossman, consulting executive; Spandan Daftary, senior coordinating producer, Fox Sports; and Brad Weimer, WWE coordinating producer, Fox Sports. In addition to months of development, Fox produced two preview episodes of WWE Backstage after Game 3 of Fox’s ALCS coverage on Oct. 15 and after an episode of SmackDown (moved to FS1 because of the World Series) on Oct. 25.
“We’ve been fortunate to have two preview episodes before we’ve even actually launched the show,” says Ullman. “The social-media reaction has been extremely positive. You don’t get that very often, especially with hardcore wrestling fans, so that is really exciting.”
New Frame Rate Gives Cinematic Feel to SmackDown
Fox Sports and WWE continue to evolve the weekly SmackDown production after debuting on Oct. 4. Ullman says his team has been in constant contact with WWE EVP, Television Production, Kevin Dunn and the WWE production team.
“It has been really interesting because they have never really had a relationship with a sports department like us,” says Ullman. “I think they appreciate us for our sports-production knowledge we’re constantly giving each other valuable feedback.”
One of the most noteworthy production changes for SmackDown since arriving on Fox has been the decision to lower the frame rate on ringside cameras in an effort to make the action look more cinematic. After testing several frame rates and shutter speeds during the past six months, Fox and WWE elected to lower the frame rate to 29.97 fps for this “shutter angle.”
“Luckily, there weren’t too many big technical changes,” says Mike Davies, SVP, field and technical operations, Fox Sports. “The cameras are licensed to do the frame rate, and it is then converted to normal 1080i/59.94 to be routed around the truck. This allows the same workflow to be preserved. We use one camera that is dedicated to super-motion next to the main camera.”
He adds that the project is another example of successful cooperation between the Fox Sports and WWE teams. SmackDown director Marty Miller has played an integral part in developing the shutter-angle shooting style, and WWE’s Chris Kaiser, EVP, television operations and production; Duncan Leslie, SVP, event technical operations; and Marty Pingree, VP, event technical operations and engineering; have led the way on the operations side.
“It has been a great effort on cooperation between the two groups,” says Davies. “Ongoing tests are being sorted with different cinema lenses and large-format cameras. We see this as an evolution that we can improve upon with time.”